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Can Environmentalism Reinvent Itself?

By Keith Kloor
Jul 5, 2011 7:29 PMNov 20, 2019 2:35 AM


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An intellectually bankrupt, marginalized social movement with an expired shelf life is at a crossroads. (Metaphor mix alert!) On Saturday, a Guardian article asked:

Has the green movement lost its way?

True, we have heard this tune before. This time, however, there is mounting evidence that more charter members of the club are at last recognizing that contemporary environmentalism is in a protracted death spiral. In her Guardian piece, Susanna Lustin uses the recent conversion of former green activist Mark Lynas (the latest heretic?) to explore the case for a curdled enviro movement, a thesis summed up here in the article's subhead:

Anti-nuclear, anti-capitalist, anti-flying: the green movement may have alienated more people than it has won over, and there are now calls for a new kind of environmentalism.

What would that entail? Well, here's Lynas in a weekend opinion piece published elsewhere:

Solving many of the world's most critical environmental challenges will, in some cases, involve doing the exact opposite of what most environmentalists want. Rather than retreating into hair-shirt austerity, I believe that, just as technology got us into this mess, technology is vital to get us out of it.That means embracing some things that will make a lot of Green believers choke on their organic muesli.

It has taken me a long time to reach this conclusion. I used to passionately oppose not only nuclear power but GM crops. I once even threw a pie in the face of a Danish scientist who dared to question the orthodox environmental line. So what changed?Through research, I found that much of what I believed about environmental issues had little, if any, basis in science. Put simply, though my concerns were right, my solutions were wrong.

Some--especially climate skeptics--will likely see a contradiction in that last sentence and might argue that his "concerns" also have "little, if any basis, in science." I suppose his new book, published this week in the UK, details not just his awakening but also his argument for the validity of those environmental concerns, and the solutions he believes (and many greens reject) necessary to tackle them.

By now, this all might be too much for committed environmentalists to stomach, so I don't expect them to have much appetite for Walter Russell Mead's recent three-part deconstruction of Al Gore, international climate policy, and environmentalism. (Here's part one, two, and three.) I echo Matt Ridley, who said, "I don't agree with everything" in these essays, but also like Ridley, I think there's plenty that is "perceptive" and worth reading. For example, who can disagree with Mead on this:

"Climate of Denial," Vice President Gore's "Rolling Stone" essay is not, I am sorry to say, very useful as a guide to resuscitating the environmental movement. It is largely reduced to the classic loser sandlot complaints: the other side didn't play fair, they had bigger kids and the refs were biased. Al Gore seems to want the climate movement to behave like the French Bourbons: to forget nothing in the way of grievances "” and to learn nothing about how to do better next time.

All pretty much true, except the facetious part about Mead being "sorry to say" the essay is not a useful primer to resuscitate environmentalism. But if you're open-minded, don't let Mead's criticism of Gore keep you from reading on, or you might miss this:

Whatever one thinks of the scientific evidence for climate change, Gore is on much stronger ground when he argues that the earth is warming than when he argues that a great green global treaty on the lines he proposes can ever be either adopted or enforced. There are a great many scientists and scientific journals who agree with Mr. Gore about climate change. Perhaps they are all frauds and mountebanks "” but that is a tough case to make in the court of public opinion. Once the argument moves to science it goes into complex and tricky terrain from which the broad lay public will draw only uncertain conclusions. Gore does not win the scientific argument as decisively as he would like "” but his opponents cannot deliver a political death blow there, either. The lay public perceives angry experts and dueling theories with a large but not totally convincing preponderance of evidence on Gore's side. There is, however, no serious evidence in either history or political studies to suggest that his approach to the problem can ever be adopted or will ever work. Like war, global warming may well be real "” but that doesn't mean a treaty can help. The green movement's core tactic is not to "hide the decline" or otherwise to cook the books of science. Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and obviously impractical political program in the authority of science. Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty first century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.

To argue with these people about science is to miss the core point. Even if the science is exactly as Mr. Gore claims, his policies are still useless. His advocacy is still a distraction. The movement he heads is still a ship of fools.

Make of that what you will, but I happen to think the green movement is also tottering because it: 1) has gone stale, 2) has narrow demographic appeal, and perhaps most importantly, 3) has no compelling narrative (other than doomsday is always around the corner, and people are bored by that one). Which is why I think the novelist Ian McEwan, in that Guardian piece, is on to something when he explains why he believes interest in climate change is waning:

I think it's got a lot to do with human nature. Most issues have a narrative, with the sense of an ending or resolution "“ the referendum is passed, the government falls "“ but this really is a lifetime story, and not just our lifetime, but our children's and their children's. We are decades away from the point where we say, 'We've finally deflected the rising curve of Co2 emissions, so let's have one last push to fix it for good.' We've made no impact on this rising curve as yet, and it's hard to keep interest and optimism alive.

Generally speaking, that's the big challenge for greens: keeping interest and optimism alive.

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